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Since '01, Guarding Species Is Harder

A black-tailed prairie dog feeds in Kansas's Logan County in this file photo from 2006. A Western conservation group is suing the federal government to force it to respond to a petition to list the animal as endangered.
A black-tailed prairie dog feeds in Kansas's Logan County in this file photo from 2006. A Western conservation group is suing the federal government to force it to respond to a petition to list the animal as endangered. (By Steven Hausler -- Associated Press)

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

With little-noticed procedural and policy moves over several years, Bush administration officials have made it substantially more difficult to designate domestic animals and plants for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

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Controversies have occasionally flared over Interior Department officials who regularly overruled rank-and-file agency scientists' recommendations to list new species, but internal documents also suggest that pervasive bureaucratic obstacles were erected to limit the number of species protected under one of the nation's best-known environmental laws.

The documents show that personnel were barred from using information in agency files that might support new listings, and that senior officials repeatedly dismissed the views of scientific advisers as President Bush's appointees either rejected putting imperiled plants and animals on the list or sought to remove this federal protection.

Officials also changed the way species are evaluated under the 35-year-old law -- by considering only where they live now, as opposed to where they used to exist -- and put decisions on other species in limbo by blocking citizen petitions that create legal deadlines.

As a result, listings plummeted. During Bush's more than seven years as president, his administration has placed 59 domestic species on the endangered list, almost the exact number that his father listed during each of his four years in office. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has not declared a single native species as threatened or endangered since he was appointed nearly two years ago.

In a sign of how contentious the issue has become, the advocacy group WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking a court order to protect 681 Western species all at once, on the grounds that further delay would violate the law. Among the species cited are tiny snails, vibrant butterflies, and a wide assortment of plants and other creatures.

"It's an urgent situation, and something has to be done," said Nicole Rosmarino, the group's conservation director. "This roadblock to listing under the Bush administration is criminal."

Developers, farmers and other business interests frequently resist decisions on listing because they require a complex regulatory process that can make it difficult to develop land that is home to protected species. Environmentalists have also sparred for years with federal officials over implementation of the law.

Nevertheless, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton added an average of 58 and 62 species to the list each year, respectively.

One consequence is that the current administration has the most emergency listings, which are issued when a species is on the very brink of extinction.

And some species have vanished. The Lake Sammamish kokanee, a landlocked sockeye salmon, went extinct in 2001 after being denied an emergency listing, and genetically pure Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits disappeared last year after Interior declined to protect critical habitat for the species.

Administration officials -- who estimate that more than 280 domestic species should be on the list but have been "precluded" because of more pressing priorities -- do not dispute that they have moved slowly, but they dispute the reasons.


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